Hebrews 11:1-13; 39
All is not Lost
Let me begin by acknowledging that this is a difficult passage to hear, as is much of the book of Job. We have a tendency in our modern world to like things to be nice and clean; neat and easy to understand; joyful and upbeat. Job is really none of those things. We tend to try and make Job manageable by focusing on the "patience of Job," it is even a modern-day cliché; but Job is far more complex. Job does much more than merely exhibit patience. The book of Job is messy, complicated, and even depressing at times.
Yet, this is precisely why Job is so important. We balk at the idea of being angry at God. We look at God as an ever-present, ever-loving being, and when all we feel are emptiness and sadness, we are afraid to talk about it because somehow this seems to be an inappropriate front to God. We have this general idea in our heads that we are being disrespectful if we cry out that God seems totally absent from our lives. And yet, this is precisely what Job does, and the passage we heard a few moments ago is a prime example of that. Job gives us permission to feel bitterness in the face of injustice. Job allows us be upset and to cry out when God seems absent. But Job also tells a story of faith; a faith which does not falter in the face of the greatest trials. And like Job, we must keep the faith no matter what we face.
Today, I would like to focus on two ideas: Faith, and hope. I think to really talk about hope; about the importance of hope in our Christian journeys, and about having hope, we have to acknowledge that there are times in our lives when things are so bad it is as if all hope is lost. So we begin today with Job, who was in such a situation himself.
As we know, Job is hit with one trial after another. And in the passage we hear this morning, Job is at his wits end. He admits a bitter complaint. Job acknowledges a heavy hand, despite his groaning. Job expresses his desire to go before God in trial, desperate to be free of his many difficulties, but laments that even this is not possible because he cannot find God; God is absent. Job cries out that his heart is faint and he is terrified.
I think we all have at least a sense of what Job is feeling; perhaps at times such feelings have been more prevalent than at others, but it doesn't change the fact that there are times when we desperately need God and it seems as if God simply is not there.
I believe we are all familiar with Mother Teresa; known the world over for her work with the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in the slums of Calcutta, India. By all measures, she was and is an exemplar of the Christian faith. But as we began learning after her death in 1997, Mother Teresa's faith was not as rock-solid as outward appearances would indicate. Like so many who seek after God, Mother Teresa struggled in the midst of great doubt, wondering about the presence of God.
In 1979, three weeks after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, Mother Teresa wrote in a letter to a spiritual confidant, "Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,--Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak...l want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand."
In personal letters and writings, Mother Teresa spoke of "dryness" and "darkness." In a lament to Jesus, Mother Teresa wrote, "When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me —and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." At times, she was even driven to a doubt about the existence of God. This spiritual pain seemed to persist through much of Mother Teresa's life and ministry.
The truth is we all have periods of "darkness" in our lives. We all face the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one. Or we agonize in watching a loved one suffer. Some struggle themselves in the face of overwhelming illness or disease. Parents worry about their children; sons and daughters worry about their parents. Families break and marriages dissolve, leaving nothing but stress and depression in their wake. Presently, we are facing the darkness of a financial recession; once soon-to-be retirees have lost a lifetime of savings. Jobs are disappearing left and right.
Such darkness in our lives is compounded when we cry out to God for help and for comfort and find no response, no reprieve, no respite from the agony. How can there be hope in the face of such hardships?
All is not lost. There is always hope. But hope is nothing without faith. The eleventh chapter of the letter in Hebrews begins this way, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
Faith brings assurance to hope. Our hope lies in the future, but it is mere optimism if we do not have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. As difficult as it may be; in the "darkness" of our lives, we must seek to maintain our faith in God and hold fast to it.
As we heard this morning, even as Job laments the absence of God, he forges ahead, persisting in his search for God. "God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me." Job says, "Yet 1 am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face." Job is persisting in his faith. Despite the darkness cloaking his life, Job declared that he would not be silent, that he would continue to cry out for God. When we are relentless in our faith, we can hold on to hope.
Mother Teresa, too, continually sought after her faith even in the darkest despair. She found ways to live through her spiritual struggles, and she never abandoned her belief or her work.
That is our task too. If you are like me, then you have wondered how Mother Teresa maintained her belief and forged ahead in her work in Calcutta. Throughout her life and career, Mother Teresa had spiritual advisors and confidants. In perhaps her darkest hour of doubt, her spiritual advisor, Joseph Neuner, told her three things she desperately needed to hear, and things that we need to hear too. Rev. Neuner told Teresa that there is no human remedy for the "darkness" we sometimes find ourselves in. He told her that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and that her very craving for God was a sure sign of God's hidden presence in her life. And finally, Neuner advised Mother Teresa that the absence she sensed was a part of the "spiritual side" of her work for Jesus.
We were created to long for God. We are designed to desire God in our lives. God has made humanity this way. And when it seems that God is completely absent, this craving, as Neuner says, is a sure sign of God's hidden presence in our lives. This longing becomes the basis for faith, and with this deep desire for God within us, we must forge ahead. If we are to maintain faith in the dark hours of our lives, it requires patient perseverance.
When John Wesley himself was in the throes of a period of doubt in his life, the German preacher, Peter Bohler said this to him, "Preach faith until you have it, then, because you have it, you will preach faith." We must preach faith until we have it, so to speak. We have to be diligent in our prayer life; even if that means our prayers are full of laments in God's absence. We have to study God's Word through the Scriptures. We have to abstain from those things which distract our attention from God. We must follow God's call and seek God's will. Of course, none of these things are easy, but they are the building blocks of our faith and in turn our hope. In the midst of everything, Job never stops talking to God, and neither can we.
Job may not understand how God hears him, but it is a statement of faith that Job is able to voice even his pain and confusion to God. We are better off to rail against God as Job does, or cry out to God in pain as Mother Teresa does, than to turn away from God in our time of darkness. God has willingly entered into an hour of darkness on our behalf.
God in Jesus Christ came to this earth and subjected himself to hatred, brutality, and even death, so that we might have hope. Will we shun that great act? We know God more fully because God incarnate walked on this earth.
We know God's love and grace more fully because Jesus not only taught us about God's love and grace, he demonstrated it as well. Might we know God more fully even when God seems
absent? In some way, we often come to know the meaning of a thing through its absence rather than its presence.
Think of it this way. A carpenter goes into his well-furnished workshop, complete with stacks of wood, containers of nails, and racks and racks of tools. As the carpenter focuses on the work of his project, he thinks very little of the individual items. The wood, the nails, the hammer are simply taken for granted as part of the carpenter's activity. But then, in the midst of his diligent work, the hammer breaks as the shaft snaps off at the head. Suddenly, the carpenter is acutely aware of the hammer. Once simply taken for granted, the image of the hammer, what it does, how essential it is to his work, are all vividly present to the carpenter precisely because of its absence.
So it was for Job, who felt not the justice of God, and so longed for it even more. So it was for Mother Teresa, whose soul was empty, and so she prayed God's hand at work in her life all the more. And so it shall be for us, if we hold fast to the faith as Job did and as Mother Teresa did. God's love and passion are no less real to those who hold fast the faith than the hammer is to the carpenter.
God's time is not our time.
God's ways are not always our ways.
But we have known and experienced God's love in our own lives; that is most likely the reason we are all gathered here this morning. And having known and experienced God's grace and love, we can doubt its existence no more than our own reality.
The Bible teaches us that if we meet the trials of life with the steadfast constancy of faith in Christ, life becomes infinitely more splendid than it ever was before. The struggle is the way to glory, and the very struggle itself is a glory.
So, in those deepest, darkest hours of our lives, we can have faith because we already know of the reality of God's love through Jesus Christ. When that darkness stretches on for weeks, or months, or even years, we must cling to that faith and strive after it.
And in our striving after faith, we will find hope.
All is not lost. God is at work in this world. God is at work in our
lives. And that, friends, is a glorious thing.